Once upon a time in a forest lived a man and his beautiful daughter. One day, a gold carriage drawn by six horses stopped before their house. Out of the carriage stepped a king. â€œWould you give me your daughter to be my wife?â€ he asked the man. Well, so far, this seems like a perfectly appropriate film for Valentineâ€™s Day.
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A woman is in what looks like some sort of hospital, and is readingâ€¦from the middle ofâ€¦a book called Bluebeard, by Helumt Barz, you know, the one about that scary aristocrat who murdered his wives. Well, the woman apparently knows how the story ends. Well, I am not sure that that is appropriate for Valentineâ€™s Day. The manâ€™s daughter kills the king. Cue some very quirky romantic comedy piano music as a man walks through a tunnel, steals some sort of drain pipe, goes into a hotel room where a woman is in the bed, hits the woman a few times the pipe, and then takes a shower. Something tells me that this was actually a bad idea for a Valentineâ€™s Day movie, but it is too late to turn back now. Also, that piano music lied to me; music like that will never be played again in this movie.
The crime scene is flooded with police officers by the time Detective Takabe arrives on the scene. It is not immediately clear why Takabe arrived late, but he manages to find the culprit, who had left his clothes and ID in the bathroom and had been hiding nearby. Also, it turns out that the man had cut a big X in the womanâ€™s throat before taking that shower.
It is eventually established that Takabe had dealt with two other similar murders during the past two months, so this would be the third. Three seemingly normal and unconnected characters each suddenly killed someone for no discernable reason, cutting an X into the victimâ€™s throat. Takabe tries to go over the case with a psychologist named Sakuma, but neither of them can come up with a reasonable explanation for how these crimes are connected, eliminating the obvious like a fictional crime story, leaks from the police or media, or even Sakumaâ€™s own lectures. Sakuma half-jokingly says that it was the devil that made them do it, and then says offhandedly that maybe there is no meaning behind all of this. Takabe does not accept this.
A man wanders around on a beach, he walks up to another man and asks where he is, what day it is, where he is, who he is. It seems apparent that this man has a severe case of short term and long term amnesia. The second man takes him home, perhaps hoping to get him help the next day. The second man notices that the name â€œMamiyaâ€ is written on his guestâ€™s clothes, so they decide to call him that, well, at least until â€œMamiyaâ€ forgets. Mamiya seems unwilling to try to remember details about his life, and is more interested about the life of his host and his hostâ€™s wife. Mamiya somehow knows what the wife was wearing despite never having seen her. He flicks a lighter and softly demands to hear more about the wife. By the next morning, the man will have murdered his wife and attempted suicide. His Valentineâ€™s Day is going to be quite unhappy.
This movie is part detective story, part psychological thriller, part supernatural horror. I will admit to not being a big fan of horror, particularly the supernatural stuff, despite East Asia having a ton of supernatural horror movies. What I like about this movie is the very specific nature of the threat. At some point, a perfectly normal person can suddenly kill another person as if it were a perfectly natural thing to do. This is neither a possession nor a person being turned into a monster, not even temporarily. It is about the monster within being brought out. And there are no warning signs, no apparent breaks from sanity. There is just the brutal murder.
The catalyst for the creation of this film was the question: what if that murderer whom neighbors had described as seeming perfectly normal really was perfectly normal? Like the people behind the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attacks in the Tokyo subway two years prior. If they were normal people, could they have been anyone? That person could be you; that person could be someone close to you. The people whom we see outside of the investigation seem to have no idea about the significance of these murders. This series of murders is not gripping a community. That stuff happens to other people, because it could never happen to you. It is the utter banality of it all that makes it most frightening.
The banality of this horror drives the tone of this film. The pace is really slow and the style relies quite a bit on an unsettling atmosphere and mood. There are almost no jump scares here. No chases. No screaming. No buildup to any murder. Most of them we do not see, and the ones that we do see are just presented in a matter-of-fact manner. This is not a terror that envelopes the entire film; it wanders around quietly and nonchalantly, just as Mamiya does. With the exception of a few jump cuts, most of the shots are normal if not long. The film rarely dips into surrealism, but it becomes even creepier when it does. The occasional gaps in the narrative (I am told that there is a longer version of the movie somewhere) gives almost even the most normal-looking scene an unsettling ambiguous quality; not so much that the movie skipped something, but that the characters somehow forgot whole sections of the immediate past. And with the exception of the happy piano piece in the beginning and a slightly less happy piano piece during the end credits, the musical score is sparse. Most of the music sounds like wind traveling through a pipe, though there are sometimes strings or some sort of woodwind playing actual notes very slowly. But a lot of the times, the movie relies just on the sounds of the scenes. This could be a machine in another room, the rain outside, the rustle of leaves, the turning of a page, the crackle of a tiny flame, or outright silence. It is the pauses, the gaps, the things obscured from view or just off-screen that make this movie. Sometimes, you are unsure what just happened or what is the significance of what is currently happening. Maybe the answer doesnâ€™t really matter. You can try to make sense of it all, but trying to rationalize the unexplainable and apply logic to the illogical may be exactly what causes the murders to take place.
By now, you may have already guessed what is going on here: Mamiya is hypnotizing people. Well, this movie is not necessarily about having a twisty mystery or staying ahead of the audience. Yes, Mamiya is hypnotizing people into killing others. And if this strikes you as unrealistic, rest assured that that is not the only part of this story that is of dubious realism. But he is not just doing hypnotizing people. When he asks people questions, it is not necessarily because he doesnâ€™t know, but because he wants to break down the thought process of his unwitting subjects. He repeatedly asks them who they are, as if their ability to answer means that they have not yet figured it out. Like Fight Club without the fighting. His own mind is empty and so he gets into other peopleâ€™s heads to pick up on the dark side of the personalities. The resentments that they suppress due to social norms. He amplifies these small and not so small grudges until they turn into a drive to murder that overcome moral and ethical inhibitions. So, for people who could never kill anyone, killing becomes a natural act. Extremely natural; there is no rage or crazed mania. It just happens as if it was meant to happen. Maybe they are remorseful afterwards; maybe not. But in the moment, it was completely natural. No motive was necessary.
Japanese society is known for being rather reserved and polite to the point of dishonesty. While the director of the upcoming AKIRA remake suggests that this is due to weak character, it is probably more due to their holding back and playing their designated roles. Thus, people develop identities that may not be all that they are. I guess that Americans, at least ones here in the Northeast, are meant to be more blunt and honest, though I am not so sure about that. In any case, one example of Japanese courtesy comes about sixteen minutes into the movie. Takabe is at a drycleaners where the man in front of him is quietly cursing out some unknown peopleâ€”who are probably not presentâ€”w hile waiting for his clothes. Yet, when the employee returns, the man is all smiles and courtesy. In this one little sequence, with this one person, we see a little bit about this movie. Japanese society (though not the only society) focuses less on individuals and more on peopleâ€™s relationships to each other. People have positions in society, at work, in families, in friendships. People are certain things to other people. They act certain ways in certain circumstances. If they are not how they are all of the time, then who are they?
Takabe seems to have two identities: that of a dogged detective trying to solve a bizarre series of murders and that of a devoted husband of a woman (the one from the opening scene) who seems to suffer from short-term memory loss. Which of these identities is more true to who he is? Maybe neither of them are him. Maybe they both are him. Maybe they are just different facets of who he is and he cannot be his full self all of the time. Is he the type of person who could commit acts of cruelty to, say, the entire civilian population of a foreign city (ahem) and then live the rest of his life with his family as if nothing happened? There is a rage somewhere inside of him that sometimes seems to burst out of nowhere as he comes more obsessed with the case and it and starts to worry Sakuma. Does it come only when provoked or is it always there under the surface?
Mamiya, by contrast, seems to have completely lost his identity, pulling on the identity of others and manipulating them. While Takabe and Sakuma eventually learn more about him and why he may have become what he has become, Mamiya no longer is who he was. He has no relation to anyone and no relationship with anyone. He has no one and has basically become no one. He wanders around casually with little motivation to actively cooperate with anyone, even though he pretty much goes where people tell him to go due to having little else to do. He has no worries or peeves other than annoying questions from those who inconvenience him. He has no obligations to anything or anyone. He seems to be in a constant haze, maybe slightly drugged out, but mostly calm. There is pretty much only one moment where he is shown exerting energy to do something, and it causes a section of a building to vibrate. His demeanor and actions do not really inspire fear; if anything they inspire annoyance and exasperation on the part of other characters and maybe the viewers. But then you would expect the source of murder to be obviously scary. Or maybe unassuming or extremely charismatic. Mamiya is one whom you would not expect. That is probably how he gets to people, even those who should know better.
Mamiya is free from the constraints and restraints of society. And maybe, for a brief moment, he gives others a feeling of freedom from society as well. They are free to release all of the worry and anger that they have held inside, maybe experiencing peace for the first time. Yet, this freedom that he bestows comes at a terrible cost. Would these people be better if they were normally freer to speak their minds or are the social rules the only things that prevent us all from turning into horrible brutes?
One particular hint could be the character of Takabeâ€™s wife, Fumie. Again, she has short term memory loss, but unlike Mamiya, she is still part of societyâ€¦sort of. She is in and out of a hospital where she had been getting treatment. More importantly, though, she has settled into a kind of routine that is incomplete and which has lost its purpose. She prepares dinner for Takabe, but forgets to cook it. She starts the laundry machine without putting any clothes in. She goes out to shop and then just gets lost. She has a sense of obligation and goes through the motions, but nothing comes of it. She may not feel like an automaton, but she acts as one, the way Mamiyaâ€™s victims are when they kill their own victims.
s condition, but the stress of the job eventually seeps into his home life. Does her behavior answer the question of societal restrictions? Well, maybe, but it could go either way. This movie is not about answering any questions, and it seems content to reside in uncertainty, even up to the final second before the end credits. Maybe the movie is lamenting a change in Japanese society or maybe the movie is calling for change. Or maybe it is just simply suggesting that such change is inevitable, and baffling violence is simply the most obvious sign of it.
If you are looking for a movie that will scare you out of your mind, then this movie is not what you are looking for. This one, however, might burrow into your mind and make you uncomfortable for a few days. Let it slowly and gently hypnotize you as Mamiya hypnotizes those around him. Maybe you will look at strangers and people you know a little differently. Maybe you will try to better understand those little fears and peeves that plague you. Or not. In any case, I recommend it. Maybe it is not the best movie to watch on Valentineâ€™s Day, butâ€¦you knowâ€¦actually, watch it for Valentineâ€™s Day. Why not? It might just inspire you and your loved ones to engage in an honest conversation that could strengthen your relationship and save your lives.
Next Time: Mulan (China: 2009, approx. 115 minutes).
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Time After Next: Secret Sunshine (South Korea, approx. 140 minutes).
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